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Hillary's gotta have it

ElectionsHillary ClintonNational GovernmentGovernmentBarack ObamaWhite HousePolitics

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton may have clawed her way out of an abyss in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, but the shadows over her campaign are a reminder that the path she's forging is still in the deep woods.

The major news media -- especially the TV pundits, who were preparing to write Clinton off after her defeat to Barack Obama in Iowa on Jan. 3 -- seem to have already developed amnesia about that Iowa interlude. By Tuesday evening, they had resumed the pro-Clinton cheerleading routine that's been making them hoarse since last summer. But for a lot of ordinary people, the "unlikability" that dogged Clinton in the Midwest has been stirring up complex emotional -- even existential -- issues since her campaign was in its nascent stages.

There are, of course, lots of ways to dislike a person, and that goes double for Clinton, whose stridency can grate even on those who agree with her ideas. But aside from concerns about Clinton's electability, authenticity or trustworthiness, I'm routinely struck by the number of Democrats who talk about her as though they were caught in a relationship with someone who initially looked good on paper but somehow never elicited a chemical attraction. From men and women alike (and often the women are so demographically similar to Clinton they could have eaten off the same plates at Wellesley), the refrain I hear is this: "I really wish I could like her, but somehow I just don't and that makes me feel ... guilty ."

No wonder Clinton cried this week (or almost cried or pretended to cry or programmed her neural interface to register emotion at approximately 0900 hours on Jan. 7). That "guilty" sentiment sounds a lot like what women (and men) hear when they're being dumped, an electoral version of "it's not you, it's me."

That's not to say that Clinton's brief loss of composure (and, for my money, the moment was real; the woman is many things, but a subtle actress is not among them) was the direct result of any single barb. True, Iowa just wasn't that into her, and that must have stung. But the relentless chatter about her every move and outfit, lack of sleep, and the sinking feeling that comes from realizing you're a workhorse that's been pulling along a rival you can't see as anything but a show horse, are all good reasons to get a little weepy. If they weren't, girls' bathrooms at high school dances would be very different places.

Still, the ambivalence felt by so many would-be Clinton supporters has been around since long before those tears welled up. And despite the myriad reasons to feel uneasy about Clinton, the most salient one ultimately may have less to do with her emotionalism (or lack of it) than with the sharp contours of her passion.

For a lot of people, Hillary Clinton just wants this too badly. Her Achilles heel is not that she cries (or doesn't) from disappointment, but that she is visibly salivating from hunger. That may be OK for male candidates, whose appetites tend to be selling points. But if there's anything that's drilled into women's heads before we're old enough to even ask for something, it's the importance of playing hard to get, of pretending we don't want anything at all.

For those whose romance with the Clintons has been eclipsed by the sudden and urgent desire to build a nest with Obama, the crucial factor may have its roots in age-old mating rituals as much as modern-day campaign strategy.

As difficult as it to say out loud (which is why you haven't heard it), Clinton's aching need for the presidency is freaking voters out. Like a bachelorette whose obsessive focus on finding a mate has reduced the other aspects of her life to blank, negligible spaces, Clinton has somehow managed to give people the feeling that, should she not get the nomination, she has nothing to go back to. The fact that Clinton is not only a senator but is likely destined to be a figure of historical importance seems nothing more than a parting gift should she not win the presidency. At least, she appears to see it that way.

What we want from Clinton is the impossible. We want her to pursue the nomination without looking like a pursuer.

We want, on some level, for her to win the White House according to the dating guide "The Rules" -- acting aloof to the point of indifference. We might even want her to borrow a page from "Bridget Jones' Diary," in which the heroine resolves not to "sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend."

As counterintuitive as it sounds, we want Clinton to assure us that she has plenty of other fish to fry if things don't go her way.

The problem is, political campaigns aren't won by following "The Rules." That's why we may be further from electing a female president than we'd care to admit.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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